What it’s like being the sibling of a child with RAD

“It’s like living in a prison. We can’t go anywhere. All doors are locked. Alarms everywhere. We can’t have friends over. Stuff goes missing. We’ve all had black eyes, split lips and bite marks…we’re the ones who suffer.” – Grace, 14, on living with a sibling with reactive attachment disorder.

Grace’s experience is not uncommon for siblings of children who fall on the moderate to severe range of reactive attachment disorder (RAD). The dysregulation and other challenges of RAD restrict family activities, cause stress and chaos, and require a disproportionate amount of parental attention and energy.

Siblings are too often the overlooked victims of the disorder.

I initially thought that adopting another child would enrich the lives of my other kids. I certainly never imagined that it’d be a traumatizing situation. For years, my children were routinely exposed to scary outbursts and stressful conflicts. They were humiliated and embarrassed at school – especially after their brother who has RAD punched a teacher in the stomach. They missed out on sleepovers, birthday parties, and were late to basketball and soccer practices. Doing my best in the moment – surviving – I didn’t realize how difficult things were for them until much too late. They had internalized fear, anxiety, and anger.

The struggles and emotions of brothers and sisters of children with RAD—siblings like Grace—can best be understood through their own words. I put up a post on two online Facebook support groups to gather those sentiments. In those posts, I requested parents to ask their children what it’s like having a sibling with RAD. I’ve included their responses throughout this article and only edited their comments for grammar.

Doing my best in the moment – surviving – I didn’t realize how difficult things were for them until much too late. It was only later that I realized how traumatized siblings internalize fear, anxiety, and anger.

Living in Fear

Many siblings are trapped in a perpetual state of anxiety and vigilance, fearful for their own safety and the safety of their parents. They’re often targeted with physical aggression and witness terrifying situations.

Here’s what siblings are saying:

“I can feel her getting all angry and I get worried and feel a little sick in my stomach. When she gets really bad and is yelling and screaming and hitting you [mom] I feel upset that I can’t stop her, that I can’t protect you from her.” – Chad, 10

“Mommy, I am scared. She hurts me.” – Susie, 6

“Is the door locked?” – Jake, 15, sleeping on his parent’s bedroom floor with his 10 and 12-year-old brothers.

“I’m scared she’s going to do something to me. But I won’t let her know I’m scared.” – Mia, 11

“I wish she could live somewhere else. I don’t like her anymore. She’s never nice.” – Ava, 4, whispered to her mother afraid her sister with RAD would overhear and retaliate.

“No, Sis!” – Emma, 2, screamed in a nightmare after watching her 12-year-old sibling with RAD physically attack her mother.

“Why is she always so mean to me? She’s always hateful and yelling at me.” – Ashley, 10. A middle child, Ashley also has a brother with RAD. Of him she says, “He lies to get me in trouble. He hits me and threatens to kill me and swears at me.”

What you can do

Put alarms on sibling’s doors to help them feel safe. Give them the option of sleeping on a daybed in your bedroom. Make a concerted effort to minimize their exposure to violence and danger with an escape plan out of escalating situations. This may mean calling grandma to be picked up, going outside to play or another option that works best for your family.

Internalizing dysfunction

For many siblings, family life can be highly dysfunctional and confusing. This can lead to a warped view of normal family relationships with devastating, lifelong impacts. Siblings often struggle to differentiate the person from the disorder and come to hate their brother or sister who has RAD.

Here’s what siblings are saying:

“She always says she’s sorry and goes right back to being so happy when I’m still hurt. I can’t trust her anymore because she always says she won’t do it again and then usually does in the very same day.” – Beth, 10

“I never want children of my own. What if something goes wrong and they end up like her? I just couldn’t handle raising a child like that!” – Marie, 29

“Mom, does he have to come home? You are so much nicer when he is gone.” – Brandon, 12

“Sometimes I feel like no one can see me because my mom and dad give [my sister with RAD] constant attention.” – Honor, 6, who after having to help out with her RAD sister says she never wants to have children.

“It breaks my heart to hear my baby sister say she hates me and is going to kill me tonight! It’s not fair.” – Samantha, 15, said weeping.

“They’re always mad, sad, and don’t like their mom or dad, and lie all the time.” – Addison, 10, on why all siblings are bad.

“Don’t you get it? She is a horrible person.” – Kayla, 12, when she found her mom sobbing over something her sister with RAD said.

What you can do

Let siblings be honest about their feelings and don’t minimize their experiences. Find a good therapist who can help them process and gain some perspective. An outside person, like a therapist, can help them develop empathy and compassion while maintaining healthy boundaries.

Many people think that time apart is counterintuitive in helping a child with RAD and their family heal and attach. Yet, it’s quite the opposite with the right model.

Losing their childhood

Siblings don’t live the carefree lives of others. They miss basketball practice and piano lessons when their sibling flips into a rage. They aren’t able to go on family vacations and outings are often cut short. Their treasures and toys are broken. Their allowance is stolen. For them, growing up can be less than ideal and full of heartache and challenges.

Here’s what siblings are saying:

“I’m only 10-years-old! I’m too little to have to deal with this stuff!” – Ethan, 10, once a happy-go-lucky boy who is in therapy. ‪

“It was depressing and exhausting. I was never allowed to have fun.”  – Michael, 10, who has been in therapy for the last two years.

“It feels like living in a minefield. Looks peaceful and nice one minute, war zone the next.” Jeffrey, 8

“I never get to have friends over and I missed my best friend’s birthday party. I already had a present and had to give it to her at school on Monday.” – Abby, 11

“They have no idea what it’s been like!” Skylar, 8, cried after neighborhood kids blamed her when her sister with RAD, 11, was removed from the home. Her sister was removed because she was planning to murder Skylar and her family.

“I can’t wait to move out.” – Hunter, 17. When Hunter’s sister Ava, 10, also traumatized by their sibling with RAD heard this she said, “You can’t leave me here with her!”

“Sometimes it feels like it will never end.” – Emma, 15, who has started cutting to “release” the pain, is severely depressed, and has lost 40 pounds in the last year after witnessing the tantrums, explosions, anger, aggression, violence, and threats of a sibling with RAD.

Siblings don’t live the carefree lives of others. They miss basketball practice and piano lessons when their sibling flips into a rage. They aren’t able to go on family vacations and outings are often cut short…For them, growing up can be less than ideal and full of heartache and challenges.

What you can do

Enlist family and friends to help siblings with rides to practice, science fair projects, and other important activities. When accomodations cannot be made, acknowledge your child’s feelings and validate them. Enroll them in camps. Let them stay with grandma or auntie for long vacations to get a break and enjoy their childhood.

Collateral damage

Many parents, myself included, are so consumed with the minute-by-minute challenges of raising a child with RAD that they underestimate, or don’t fully recognize, the impact on siblings. It was only after my son was admitted to a residential treatment facility that I began to fully understand how his disorder had impacted my other children. To this day my youngest son who lived in fear of his brother for the first five years of his life is highly anxious and at age 11 is afraid to sleep alone. I often wish for a do-over.

When assessing treatment options for your child with RAD, be mindful of the needs of siblings. Many people think that time apart is counterintuitive in helping a child with RAD and their family heal and attach. Yet, it’s quite the opposite. “Time apart allows the parents and other children to heal from their own trauma while, at the same time, kids with RAD learn how to attach and to live in a family,” said Executive Director Forrest Lien. “When the children return to their own families after the Institute, everyone is stronger. They can live together safely. We’re strengthening families so they don’t fall apart forever.”

Don’t make the mistake of imagining siblings are coping and doing okay. Don’t, like me, realize only once the damage has been done. There are no perfect answers, but understanding how RAD impacts siblings is a good starting place. Don’t let them be collateral damage.

Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of these children.

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